Swedish Veteran Hotelier Serv the Servers

Veteran hotelier says the staff are a hotel’s biggest asset and tells young Chinese to look harder at gaining experience than at the paycheck to make the most of their working lives.

Fredrik Genberg believes employees, usually placed at the bottom of a company’s organization chart, really ought to be put at the top.

The general manager of Sofitel Wanda Harbin sees serving his employees well as an important part of his job.

The veteran hotelier of 23 years says all hotels have two types of customers: those who come through the front door – the paying guests, and those who come through the back door – the employees.

He insists it is not a hotel’s luxury facilities that are key to having repeat customers. Instead, what they really care about is a hotel’s service.

“If my employees are happy then they will take better care of my paying customers,” he says.

Because he is convinced that ill-treated staff can never treat guests well, Genberg has been focusing on internal communications since taking over in 2009.

He sets the example for his junior managers by doing his best to support his 15 department managers.

Genberg’s approach is paying off.

Sofitel Wanda Harbin was the most profitable of all seven Sofitel Wanda hotels in China last year, despite the global economic meltdown. But this achievement is also the result of the development model adopted in this northeastern province and the fact that Harbin has only three international class hotels.

Before taking up his Harbin assignment, Genberg had worked in hotels in the United States, Sweden and five other Asian countries.

Born in Sweden and raised in the US, he first came to Asia in 1988, working in Hong Kong, Macao, Xi’an and Beijing until 1993. He then left to work in other Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. In 2008, he returned to China and worked in Guangzhou and Harbin.

Genberg believes China’s hospitality business is experiencing fast-track growth and offers many opportunities. But, like other Asian countries, its hospitality business, too, is facing problems, such as a lack of mature professionals and lack of creative thinkers.

“People tend to do what they are told. They are not comfortable to tell their boss what they want to do,” he says, adding he finds this to be the biggest challenge.

His advice is that young Chinese should receive more “exposure” and see more of the world.

“It is all about learning. Learn the good things and make them part of your management style. Learn the bad things and make sure you don’t repeat them,” he says.

Having started from scratch in the hospitality business, Genberg says he has benefited from working with some very exceptional people. He learned from them the good personality traits one must develop to succeed – “be honest, work hard and always set targets as high as possible”.

However, to his surprise, many Chinese young people applying to work at Sofitel do not have work experience or any targets.

“It is a shortcoming because the employer cannot trust applicants. How do they know about hard work if they have not worked before? It will be a risk for the hotel to hire people without work experience,” he says.

He personally interviews every job applicant and tries to put new recruits through yearlong training. Employees at other levels are also provided with tailored training courses to improve themselves.

As he expects more five-star hotels to open in Harbin in the next few years, Genberg knows that he faces the prospect of losing his employees to these new hotels.

The labor market in China is different from how it was 20 years ago. As people can now choose where to work freely, hotels face the risk of losing trained employees, he says.

What the Sofitel Wanda Hotel does to maintain its work force is to make itself the “employer of choice”. The training courses are as important as paychecks and benefits to attract employees to continue working there happily, he says.

“Young people should not be too eager to just make money but (should) be eager to learn and gain experience. And a company that will allow you to do this is a good company to work for,” he adds.


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